Children, Youth and Families Department spokesman Henry Varela said Friday that his agency does not have the resources or authority to follow up on child abuse cases once they are closed.
CYFD conducted an investigation into a child abuse allegation made in 2012 by Omaree Varela, but the case was closed prior to Omaree’s death a week ago.
The 9-year-old’s mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, has been charged with child abuse resulting in death and is being held on $100,000 cash-only bond after she allegedly kicked her son repeatedly, causing his death on Dec. 27. According to a criminal complaint, medical personnel at a local hospital examined Omaree’s body and found evidence of current and past injuries, including bruises, cigarette burns and a bite mark.
CYFD had conducted two separate investigations into the family, both of which were closed.
While Henry Varela (no relation) would not comment specifically on Omaree’s case, he said Friday, “we do not have the authority or resources to follow a family around after an investigation has been completed and a case has been closed.”
Varela pointed out that yearly between 15,000 and 18,000 cases are reported to CYFD. The agency has about 450 caseworkers, and not all of them are in the field doing investigations, he said.
As a result, the agency relies on schools, neighbors, relatives and friends to continue monitoring what is happening with a child or family, and report any concerns to the anonymous hotline, #SAFE, or 1-855-333-7233.
“There’s nobody out there who can predict human nature,” he said. “We don’t know what people will do.”
Gov. Susana Martinez on Friday came to CYFD’s defense and called for new laws giving the agency more authority.
At a news conference on economic initiatives, she fielded a number of questions from reporters regarding the death of Omaree. Her spokesman, Enrique Knell, said “the governor reiterated that she has ordered a full review of the case and hopes the perpetrator of this crime, his mother, is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
According to KOAT-TV, the governor told reporters that the blame should fall on the mother, and not CYFD. Regarding the 2012 complaint, Martinez said that CYFD gave the mother resources to turn to, such as counseling, but that Varela-Casaus didn’t follow up.
Martinez said she believes CYFD should be able to take custody of a child if a parent does not follow through with counseling or treatment after a CYFD investigation. She wants the Legislature to grant that authority to the department.
“The law doesn’t give us any kind of ability to go back in and remove the child because you haven’t followed through,” Martinez told reporters. “We need that. We need to cover that gap.”
Martinez said she hopes Varela-Casaus is convicted of first-degree child abuse resulting in death, which would result in a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
KOAT also reported that the governor said Varela-Casaus’ other two children will get bone scans to check for breaks that have healed. APD has said that CYFD has custody of those children.
As for details about the 2012 complaint, both Henry Varela and APD have said they are barred by state law from talking about specifics of the case.
But Martinez provided some details during the news conference.
She told reporters that Albuquerque police called CYFD to investigate physical abuse, and they did. At about that same time in 2012, a teacher saw a small bruise on Omaree’s temple.
Varela’s mother told CYFD investigators that her son was making threats to harm himself. Martinez said CYFD never got straight answers about the temple bruising.
“Various stories were given by the child himself, and there was no one else in the home who could say what happened,” she said.
On Friday, Albuquerque Public Schools confirmed that Omaree was a third-grader at Hodgin Elementary School last year. APS also said he was “disenrolled” from Hodgin two weeks prior to his death, but there was no request for a transfer to a different school.
The 2012 complaint by Omaree was not the first abuse complaint CYFD had investigated regarding Omaree and his family.
In 2009, CYFD had asked another family to serve as the caretaker for him and his sister while it investigated allegations of abuse and neglect. In 2011, CYFD then ordered the children returned to their mother.
While the contents of investigative reports regarding children may be privileged information, the process involved in generating them is not.
The Albuquerque Public Schools has a written policy for reporting child abuse or neglect, said APS spokeswoman Johanna King.
“Any employee who suspects child abuse must report it to CYFD,” she said. “We are not the experts so we do not probe and try to get more information. We leave that up to law enforcement and CYFD.”
King would not comment on the Omaree Varela case, but she explained that after abuse has been reported to, or suspected by, school officials, the school contacts CYFD and APS police. School police in turn, and as a matter of practice and not policy, contact the appropriate city or county law enforcement agency.
APS police can assist district personnel in the reporting process, but they only conduct their own investigation if the abuse occurs on an APS campus, King said. Otherwise CYFD and the respective law enforcement agency conduct their own investigations and generate their own reports.
In this case, both CYFD and APD were contacted and conducted investigations.
A CYFD investigative report “is an internal document, and the only individuals or agencies to get any information from that report would be law enforcement and DA offices, and only if requested,” said Henry Varela. “We work closely with law enforcement and we generally do share information.”
In the case of Omaree Varela’s reported abuse, CYFD “referred information to the APD Crimes Against Children Unit,” he said.
APD also generated a report, which was referred to in the criminal complaint against Varela-Casaus, said APD spokeswoman Tasia Martinez.
Kayla Anderson, spokeswoman for the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, said Friday that her office was unable to find reports from either APD or CYFD concerning Omaree Varela’s abuse allegations made a year ago.
The DA’s Office does not yet have a report from CYFD on the current murder case involving the child’s mother or a completed report from APD on the murder case.
Normally, “law enforcement submits a completed case to our office, which is then screened and if appropriate presented to a grand jury,” Anderson explained. “If a defendant remains in custody after they are arrested, we have 10 business days to present the case to the grand jury. In that situation, we don’t wait for the completed case and can move forward with just the criminal complaint.”
The case against Varela-Casaus had not been presented to a grand jury as of Friday, Anderson said.